How We Think About Class

In his memoir, the late Christopher Hitchens offered the following pithy summation of class in the United States:

An old joke has an Oxford professor meeting an American former graduate student and asking him what he’s working on these days. ‘My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.’ ‘Oh really, that’s interesting: one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.’ ‘Nobody does. That’s how it survives.

This should come as no surprise in the country where everyone, rich or poor, sees herself as middle class. But a recent experience reminded me that class is real, we can have strong assumptions about it, and talking about it can get heated and personal almost as quickly as talking about race.

A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend, my kids, and I were eating at a restaurant in our neighborhood in Hartford, Conn. Because our neighborhood is overwhelmingly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, the waiter was Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, and we are Hispanic (my girlfriend) and Spanish-speaking (both of us), we ordered in Spanish. (Spanish makes up about 50% of the communication in our home and appreciably more of our interactions with neighbors and local businesses.) When my girlfriend ordered a beer, the waiter told her that there had been a delay in renewing the restaurant’s liquor license, so they couldn’t serve alcohol for a few days, but then said he could serve us but it would have to be in a cup. She said that was fine, but he ended up just bringing the bottle to the table, and we figured that was that.

After we had ordered, another party came into the restaurant and sat in the next booth. They were two couples in their forties, noticeably not from the neighborhood: white, dressed in name-brand skiing outerwear, the women tastefully and subtly bejewelled, and everyone’s hair looking just-so. Oh, and they arrived in a very shiny late-model BMW. (By way of background, here are the demographic data for our zip code, and keep in mind that the 36% living below the poverty level is skewed down somewhat, and the percentage of white people is skewed up, by the presence of Trinity College right in the middle of the neighborhood. Also note that our metro area is number two on the list of most economically segregated, which means that discernibly wealthy white people really stand out in our neighborhood.)

The waiter gave the newcomers the same explanation about the liquor license (in English), without the proviso about serving them in a cup, and the men in their party ultimately went out and bought a sixpack at a nearby bodega, while we sat there sheepishly and hoped they wouldn’t notice the single bottle on our table. From what we could observe, the service they received was in all other regards pleasant.

I related this on Facebook prefaced by the phrase, “offered without comment,” and the responses were numerous and emotional, and varied widely. There was a contingent that saw some simulacrum of social justice in the story – the idea that at least within the economically isolated Hispanic ghetto, some advantages accrued to the generally oppressed group (putting aside the tremendous irony of having me, a white, American lawyer, stand in for the oppressed just because my Spanish can sound Puerto Rican when I want it to). Then there was a contingent that saw an injustice in mistreating the swankier-looking, English-speaking patrons based solely on their nationality and apparent wealth. While everyone agreed in principle that it is generally not desirable to judge people based on their appearance, we diverged on whether judging people based on apparent wealth is as bad as judging them based on, say, race.

My position, which I offer up to be discussed, attacked, and possibly torn down, is that class-based judgments are fundamentally different and less morally repugnant than race-based judgments. Why? Because there is an element of choice in outward manifestations of wealth that does not exist in race. When a person has a late-model BMW, I feel safe (but not certain!) making certain assumptions about what she does for a living, about the importance to her of material possessions, and frankly, about the likelihood that she is involved in some economic activity that prioritizes the advancement of monied interests over the interests of working people. Of course, as a commenter pointed out last week, a person’s fancy car could be borrowed or heavily financed, but even if the person is fronting, it tells us something, I’d argue, about her values and priorities.

So I ask you, readers: do you make class-based judgments of other people? How easily are they overcome by getting to know those people? How are your judgments affected by your own economic past and present, and the moral compromises you may have made to get to where you are? Is it OK to make judgments like these, and does your answer change depending on whether you’re judging the poor (who presumably have enough miseries to deal with already) or the rich (who will probably be just fine no matter what you think)? (Two rules for commenters: (1) Before anyone brings up the “poor people with expensive handbags” line of argument, read this piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom; (2) Before anyone brings up the predictive value of race with regard to crime or economic indolence, read this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this one, and also everything he’s ever written on the topic of race; or at least read my brief explanation of why you aren’t doing statistics right.)

Here’s Lake Street Dive’s cover of Hall & Oates’ classic, “Rich Girl,” to listen to while you contemplate and comment on these weighty questions:



Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo: Robert Donovan


27 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#161)

Here’s a random suggestion that I’m not sure is true or not but I’ll put it out there for discussion: the decision to serve you guys alcohol and not the well-to-do white people may not have been a “reward” for you being Latin@, Hispanophone, and/or working-class. Might it have been more nervousness that the people who aren’t “us” would be more likely to rat out the restaurant for serving booze without a liquor license? Even if that wasn’t an explicit or realistic fear, there might’ve just been an extra willingness to trust someone within their community — for however you want to define community, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, whatever — over a fairly minor and harmless violation; this is trust you wouldn’t necessarily have with outsiders, particularly if the outsiders fit the profile of “the man”, the dominant group who enforces these laws in the first place.

@jfruh That was my first interpretation as well. This was less a class judgement on the server’s part and more likely because they saw you as a local. The same way you can get a local’s discount in Hawaii or a special menu in Chinese restaurants.

garli (#4,150)

@forget it i quit I think you guys are both right. The language acts as a signal that you’re in the group – it’s insider knowledge. It can span communicating in a different language to just using specific words or phrases that indicate that you’re part of a community.

questingbeast (#2,409)

@garli I agree, I think it’s a language issue, which is not necessarily correlated with race or class. I live in a very Welsh-speaking part of Wales (but am not Welsh myself), and in certain places I definitely get a different reception if I go in with a Welsh friend speaking Welsh. Not at all unfriendly if I’m speaking English, but not quite the same level of familiarity.

@jfruh This is a good point. We should also not discount the possibility that the waiter felt OK bending the rules for a single beer but nervous about the potential violation accompanying a larger and more bibulous party. But that does not make for a compelling meditation on the role of class in our society!

I think it’s pretty much impossible to disentangle race, ethnicity, and social class in this country, or probably almost any country. Class differences within different communities will have different markers — clothes, accent, skin tone, where you went to school. Between groups I think people rely quite a lot on racial and ethnic stereotypes as shorthand.

Just consider the different assumptions a person might make about a party of black Americans arriving at the same restaurant in a fancy new BMW. Or a Latino man in a tuxedo outside of a black tie event. Or, for that matter, a scruffy white guy in a hoodie and torn jeans walking down the street late at night.

I get to see this every day in the subtly different ways my wife and I are treated in our neighborhood, despite our identical levels of education, similar status jobs, and the way we dress (both our workplaces have formal dress codes, though I probably dress more casually/sloppily than she does otherwise). I’m pretty sure the vast majority of “class” judgments (right or wrong) that people make about each of us are based primarily on race and, in her case, way of speaking.

garysixpack (#4,263)

When it happens to me, I always assume it’s a race/culture thing.

I’m a native Chinese speaker. When I am dealing with Chinese businesses, I can often get some consideration if I asked. My wife, who is much more presentable than I am, get about the same treatment. My brother, who is not a native Chinese speaker, does not.

Personally, I only judge people who judge others based on the car they drive.

To see someone driving a –Insert car brand that you deem too expensive– and to assume they’ve made moral compromises to get that car is not much different than seeing a poor person with an expensive handbag and judging them as being foolish with money.

Also thought it was funny how you break your first rule by saying they’re fronting.

Human Centipaul (#3,559)

@forget it i quit Yep. While I might agree that class-based judgments can perhaps be less morally repugnant than race-based judgments, I wouldn’t do so on the basis that “there is an element of choice in outward manifestations of wealth.” In part, this is because I don’t really understand why I should care about someone’s outward manifestation of wealth. While the author may feel “safe” making certain assumptions about the moral character of people who drive BMWs, what’s the benefit of doing so?

Forgive my potentially obtuse read on all this. I think there’s a very interesting discussion somewhere in here, but I’m finding it masked by the “what you buy/what you drive/what you wear” lens.

Meaghano (#529)

@Human Centipaul I guess to me some of the fascinating question(s) embedded within this are, like, however inaccurate the signifiers of wealth (or lack thereof) may be, is it fair to say that they can be an expression of someone’s values/priorities? often not, I would argue, since peoples’ class/socioeconomic circumstances aren’t always or even usually a direct reflection of their values, their will, even their actions. Etc!

But sometimes lifestyle does reflect ones values — and in those cases, I mean yes we all recoil when it comes to judging people, especially people whose story we don’t at all know, but don’t we judge people on their values/priorities all the time, for better or worse? Isn’t that how we choose friends, lovers, employers, and how we shape our own lives etc etc.

I think it’s incredibly complicated but interesting.

readyornot (#816)

@Meaghano Yes, I completely agree. That signifiers of class area choice is probably the basis of the author’s idea that it’s OK to judge people on them: like, the reason it’s not fair to judge someone based on their ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc. is that they can’t do anything to change it, but it’s fair to judge someone based on a choice.

But I think you’re right, Meaghan, often those signifiers are not truly reflecting values, and that’s where I go all squirmy.

@readyornot @meaghano This is why I put the question out there: I recognize that there’s something potentially misleading about judging outward manifestations of wealth, but I can’t shake the notion that there might be something telling in those manifestations sometimes. I think that the question of whether manifestations of wealth reflect values is, in itself, fascinating, and all tied up with the way we, as a nation, exalt fiscal achievement.

garli (#4,150)

@Josh Michtom@facebook In my experience the top tier of signaling your wealth is done in a way that you’d have to be rich (or in the know) to even understand what is being said. Like you could be driving a totally middle of the road car, but the tiny tree sticker on the lower right hand of the back window indicates that you live in an exclusive gated community and the guard will know that and let you in with the sticker. You would only know that if you lived there or knew some one who did. It’s not a perfect example but I’m still working on my first cup of coffee.

paddlepickle (#5,100)

@forget it i quit There are moral compromises inherent to being a consumer in America, in basically every purchase you ever make, especially big-ticket ones like cars. When people make choices that demonstrate that they are 100% on board with corporate excess and the flaunting of wealth, that is something that you can reasonably judge.

@paddlepickle In that case, everyone is open to judgement except people who take vows of poverty.

readyornot (#816)

Frankly, I believe the author would only find it less morally repugnant to make a class-based judgment in favor of the class lower on the hierarchy. Lower tax rates on passive income from investments than on active income from earnings, restaurants refusing service to people of any race wearing baggy or club-appropriate clothing, and preschools filtering applications by poshness of the zip code are all pretty repugnant.

@readyornot Correct. My legitimized class-based judgment only punches up.

sony_b (#225)

Question – did the other group get as far as you did in the transaction? Did someone actually bring them cups of beer and then they went out for a sixer?

On the judgements issue – totally guilty. I think your point about people who choose to drive a late-model fancy car says a lot about their priorities is spot on. And their priorities aren’t necessarily bad, they are just totally different from mine and I do find it hard to relate even if they are really nice people and I genuinely like them.

But that probably makes me an asshole too, because I am a high-earning techie. I could afford the BMW, I just choose to drive a Civic.

@sony_b No. The waiter just told them there was no beer to be had, and they went out and bought the sixer. But the anecdote is really just the jumping-off point for a larger discussion, I think.

mediaandpotatoes (#6,402)

I agree with you about values re: BMW. Mostly, I just really like those lunch bags.

As someone about to give up their pretty little (heavily leveraged) BMW to go car-less and take it down a notch, this was really helpful in driving home the point that I’m NOT successful enough to drive such a flash car. I’m taking that radical step (in Southern California, no less) to help curb all of my other irresponsible behavior. No car, no evenings spent out spending money I don’t have while driving a car I can’t afford, and paying higher insurance rates because my high-performance car got me three tickets in 2012.

I mostly just liked the car because it was FAST, and well-built, I didn’t realize it made me an asshole.

Thank you for this enlightening post.

To be clear, when I talk about making judgments, I’m not talking about irrevocable condemnations (whether of asshole status, as Lana Gregory suggests, or of any other particular characteristic). But as Meaghan mentioned further above, we make judgments all the time, inevitably, but presumably manage to stay open to the possibility that they’re wrong.

That said, I suspect we’d all agree it’s safer to assume a person is an asshole on the basis of an article he wrote (e.g., me) than a car he drives (e.g. Lana or those folks at the restaurant in my neighborhood).

ameraussie (#6,492)

If I am riding my bicycle and I come head-to-head with a BMW at a four-way intersection, I automatically assume the driver is a self-important a-hat who is not going to yield, an assumption that is supported by more than one academic study.

When I see someone in an expensive car, tricked out in the latest designer gear, flaunting his or her wealth in an obvious way, I also assume that he or she has an enormous hole in his or her heart and probably needs a big hug.

And, this:

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